He’s Coming, And He Won’t Stop

Think about this question:

What would you do if you’re a guest writer at a blog devoted to chronicling tennis and the adventures of Roger Federer in particular, and you watch Rafael Nadal own the rest of the ATP Tour on hardcourts, thereby mounting a full frontal assault on Federer’s 17 major titles and his place in history?

Yeah, not an easy question to answer, is it? Viewpoint, mindset, orientation, stylistic preferences, perceived slights (or lack thereof) in the media — those and other things would shape your answer.

There is always a certain political quality to commentary on any subject when it’s intended for a wider audience. The decision to be particularly diplomatic and, on the other side of the spectrum, the decision to not give a flying fire truck about what anyone else thinks are both political responses. Does one audience deserve a soothing, consensus-laden middle ground, or does it deserve the vinegar of hard truth served forcefully?

If you’ve read me for any length of time, you know that I prefer the route of consensus and unification, because — as expressed in “A Place At The Tennis Table” last week — the world can always use more healing and inclusion. There’s never enough of that in anything human beings talk about or pursue. Some fans might need vinegar today or tomorrow, but in the aftermath of a major tournament — especially the last one of the calendar year — the focus should be on celebrating the achievement of the winner and putting it above every other discussion point that can be contested or explored.


Basic math is not hard. Monday night in New York, Rafael Nadal — in a match that contained fragments of the past 36 months — pulled within four majors of tying Federer at the top of the all-time list. The gap has not been this small between the two men since it stood at 5-1 for Federer following Wimbledon of 2005. Nadal, whose major title platter needed more hardcourt scalps in order to bolster his all-time credentials, has — with this hardcourt conquest — substantially elevated himself in the history books. He had already, of course, occupied a particularly lofty perch in the realm where the immortals of tennis live. Being able to beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon in his prime and now taking down an elite hardcourter, Novak Djokovic, in his prime years will give Nadal a lot of added credibility in all-time debates. This is not a point of dispute. (The EXTENT of the added credibility — how much you choose to assign to this feat, whatever your opinion may be — will be eternally contested by fans on various parts of the full spectrum of viewpoints.)

What adds to the richness of Nadal’s achievement is that after a sustained Djokovician ascendancy, Nadal has been able to win six of the last seven matches against his contemporary. The magnitude of that feat needs some time to sink in, and yet as soaring as that accomplishment really is, it doesn’t even quite capture this moment, this U.S. Open championship, in full.

No, the point which gets to the heart of why Nadal’s triumph is such a substantial one in the larger workings of tennis history is that Djokovic has established a well-deserved reputation as a player who is almost impossible to kill. Djokovic, despite playing a few notches below his full potential — not poorly, but far from his best — has continued to regularly make his way to major finals. When you realize that only seven men other than the Big Four have even MADE major finals since the 2006 Roland Garros tournament (Roddick, Gonzalez, Tsonga, Soderling, Delpo, Berdych, and Ferrer), Djokovic’s ability to fend off all comers becomes that much more impressive.

Djokovic has made 10 of the last 13 major finals, and if you view his 2013 Roland Garros semifinal against Nadal as the “de facto final” (that doesn’t take away from David Ferrer’s accomplishment; it is meant to highlight the extent of the challenge Nole gave to Rafa on that sun-baked afternoon…), that total becomes 11 in the past 13 majors.

Indeed, Djokovic’s transformation in recent years has been so captivating to watch because Nadal had established himself as “the toughest out in tennis,” the player you simply could not finish off in an extended war of attrition and stamina. Yet, Djokovic — for a 13-month stretch from January of 2011 through January of 2012 — clearly supplanted Rafa as “the player who could not be defeated.” Yes, the two-handed backhand certainly played a part in this shift, but Djokovic’s ability to compete with Rafa on a deep, primal level — giving no ground and suffering no deficit whatsoever in terms of resilience, fortitude, and other internal intangibles — is what truly formed the basis for the Serbian’s success in the rivalry that has become the most expansive in the Open Era.

The tactics of the two players are different, though they both relish extended combat in ways that diverge from the one-handed backhanders on tour, those who live to be shotmakers more than endurance men. Yet, despite those differences in tactics, it could be said that Djokovic — for over a year — turned the tide in his matchup with Nadal by beating the Spaniard at his own game… the game between the ears and deep inside the heart. It’s not that Nadal’s toughness and determination were insufficient, mind you. In 2011 and in the 2012 Australian Open final, Djokovic simply upped the ante as great competitors manage to do when confronted with a supremely formidable adversary-cum-obstacle.

The essence of Nadal’s greatness, then, is that his burning passion for tennis has remained hotter for a longer period of time than Djokovic’s fire.

The Serbian has forged a career of legendary proportions, to be sure, a career that will only grow in magnitude 20 years from now, when we appreciate how special this era of men’s tennis has been. Yet, if you look at the past two years, Djokovic — still so ridiculously consistent in getting to the latter stages of majors (18 straight quarterfinals, 14 straight semifinals) — has shown a tendency to falter. Commentator Andrew Burton noted on Twitter that in this U.S. Open final, Djokovic lost a chance to break at 4-4 in the third, just like the 2012 Wimbledon semifinals against Federer, and dissolved thereafter. Djokovic played well below his best in two major-final losses to a deserving Andy Murray and was this close to falling well behind in the second set of the 2013 Australian Open final against the Scotsman before gaining a reprieve and coming back. The perplexing net violation in the final set of the 2013 Roland Garros semifinal offered a potent symbolic snapshot of how the heavyweight fights that had regularly gone his way for over a year suddenly wound up on the other side of the ledger. Djokovic still found himself immersed in contentious, prolonged scraps, but he lost that measure of added steel which had carried him through 2011 and that 5:53 epic in Melbourne in early 2012.

On Monday night in New York and throughout his comeback season (with the sole exception of that one match in Monte Carlo), Nadal — physically but also mentally — has been fresher than Djokovic. In 2012, it was easier to witness Nole’s slight but real degree of slippage, given that 2011 was one of the great single-player years in the history of the sport, a year that took a lot out of Djokovic’s body and soul. In 2013, though, the pilot light — while burning enough to see off the Delpos and Wawrinkas of the world in five-set semifinal deathmatches at majors — has not burned as brightly as Nadal’s.

The second set of Monday’s U.S. Open final felt a lot like 2011 for Djokovic (and for that matter, Nadal as well), but the fourth set looked a lot like the 2010 U.S. Open final, when Djokovic knew he wasn’t quite ready to go all the way against Rafa. The difference, of course, is that while 2010 was the year in which Djokovic knew he was on the cusp of climbing the mountain and claiming his place as a tennis legend, 2013 was not supposed to elicit such competitive uncertainty from the Serb.

Who is once again the most rock-solid competitor on the planet, indeed the most resolute athlete I have seen in nearly 38 years of life — MORE THAN MICHAEL JORDAN?

It’s Rafa.

Not only does his fire within burn more deeply than his competitors, he channels that fire into his performance better than any other athlete I’ve laid eyes on. It’s really rather fitting when you think about it, too: Nadal, once the indomitable, soul-crushing, court-coverage endurance man of tennis, had that title stripped from him by Djokovic with noticeable force. The ability of Nadal to win back that distinction on Monday in New York is, by itself, the most powerful testimony and the most enduring verdict on Nadal’s competitive chops in a broader historical sense.

And so, as this U.S. Open concludes, a neat little summation can be made of both the men’s and women’s champions:

Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka are both great champions. They are both the second-best practitioners of their craft on this planet within their respective fields of competition. They have put so many victims at their feet and forged so many laudable conquests over an extended period of time. They merit no shortage of expansive accolades.

Yet, even in confrontations of champions, there are degrees and gradations of excellence. There are legendary champions, and then there are the immortals who float on an even higher level. Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal Parera have affirmed those places in the tennis pantheon.

And so, at the end of yet another year of major-tournament tennis, the thought occurs to me: The Fedal debate, while obviously irresistible on a certain level, might not have been the big poker chip on the table Monday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Only time will tell — I certainly won’t say that the final story of this era of men’s tennis has been written; the next five years will have plenty to offer us — but the main prize of last night’s match might have been the extent to which Novak Djokovic would join Fedal to form a Holy Tennis Trinity… or fall a notch below Nadal as the Mallorcan forges a place firmly alongside Federer as the best this sport has ever seen.

Phrased differently, while it is so easy to compare Nadal and Federer, perhaps we should spend more time emphasizing how both men have, in their respective careers, distanced themselves… from Djokovic and everyone else.

You spend six, seven or eight years looking at one thing in one way from one vantage point… and then suddenly, a new way of seeing emerges. Rafael Nadal’s re-emergence… on hardcourts, against Djokovic, and in the wake of his health problems… just might create a new (and healthier) way of seeing for tennis historians and fans.


About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

4 responses to “He’s Coming, And He Won’t Stop”

  1. quid says :

    A masterpiece, Matt. Certainly the most insightful piece, and perspecive creating plarform, I’ve read since that unforgettable men’s singles championship match at the USO 2013. All is needed is a picket fence, indeed. Thank you.

  2. quid says :

    * should read: perspective. Sorry.

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